There’s no more polarizing television trope than the cliffhanger. They are high risk, high reward prospects. While plenty of TV shows have built anticipation and escalated storylines by leaving their audiences hanging (sometimes for months or years at a time), just as often the strategy has backfired, where a show’s writers are either incapable of properly paying off the cliffhanger, or the cliffhanger itself is perceived as cheap audience manipulation.
Sometimes a cliffhanger says more about the state of a show than is necessarily intended; there are a couple entries on this list where an unsatisfying cliffhanger was a symptom of a burgeoning creative rot at the heart of the show, while a few of the stronger entries served as proclamations, shows coolly and confidently announcing they were hitting their creative stride.
This might seem like a lot of weight to put on the shoulders of a relatively brief portion of a show’s run, but cliffhangers are television at its most narratively brave, or foolish, or some combination of both that either pays off or fails spectacularly. It’s a gambit that often ends up defining a show in ways the creators could never have imagined.
These are the 10 Best TV Cliffhangers Of All Time (And The 5 Worst).
15 BEST: The Flash - “Fast Enough”
In a time where television is overrun with live-action superpowered hijinks, it can be easy to forget just how refreshing the initial season of The Flash was. A spinoff of the dark, largely street level heroics of Arrow, the adventures of Barry Allen presented the audience with a supremely likeable hero, some fun, twist-filled time travel plots, and surprisingly sharp special effects.
In the season 1 finale, Barry’s nemesis, the Reverse Flash, is thwarted when Eddie Thawne-- the future villain’s modern day ancestor-- sacrifices himself to erase Reverse Flash from history. This creates a paradox, and a massive wormhole opens up above Central City, threatening to consume all of existence. Without a concrete plan, but with faith in himself and his friends, Barry runs into the wormhole, determined to save the day as the scene cuts to black and season 1 concludes.
It was the show at its most exciting and hopeful, a winning combination that the show has sadly found elusive in later seasons.
14 BEST: Sherlock - “The Reichenbach Fall”
Sherlock, by its very nature, is a show built on mysteries. Generally the audience gets to play along with the titular detective and John Watson as they unwind the highly complex puzzles that series writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss concoct for the iconic duo. The season 2 finale, "The Reichenbach Fall", was something quite different.
Sherlock’s nemesis, Jim Moriarty, had orchestrated a plan where all of Sherlock’s loved ones would die if the hero didn’t jump off a rooftop, plunging to his death. Shockingly, Moriarty even killed himself so that Sherlock had no way of stopping the plan another way.
After an emotional phone call with John, Sherlock jumps off the roof, saving his friends and seemingly killing himself in the process. The episode ends with a heartbroken John standing over Sherlock’s grave… but with Sherlock watching from a distance. It’s a genius, maddening way to end a season, leaving the audience to become detectives and piece together how Sherlock cheated death (that the show never explicitly answered that question is another matter entirely).
13 WORST: The X-Files - “My Struggle II”
We live in a golden age of television revivals. Everything from Twin Peaks to Gilmore Girls has gotten a second lease on life as television grows more and more reliant on familiar brands and nostalgia. Sometimes this results in an additional great chapter in a beloved franchise; other times, however, it ends up being a warmed over mediocrity that is either quickly forgotten or cheapens the original. The 2016 revival of The X-Files, sadly, falls squarely in the latter category.
The revival season wasn’t without its strengths (“Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” was an instant classic), but for the most part it felt like series creator Chris Carter just did not have much to say about this world and its characters anymore. Gallingly, the season finale ends on a lazy, fan-baiting cliffhanger.
Mulder and Scully deal with an outbreak of a mysterious, lethal virus when Mulder himself begins to succumb to it. Scully looks up and sees what appears to be a UFO as the episode concludes. It’s a sloppy, insulting conclusion to a revival season that suggested The X-Files were best left closed.
12 BEST: Alias - “The Telling”
Before he was reviving both Star Trek and Star Wars for the big screen, and even before he helped to rewrite the rules of network television with Lost, JJ Abrams was making a name for himself with his stylish, action-packed spy show Alias. Starring a young, unknown Jennifer Garner as Sydney Bristow, the show was an instant hit, offering James Bond-style spy tropes with a compelling, tough-as-nails female lead.
After spending season two on a complicated science fiction plot involving genetic duplicates and some hints at mystical shenanigans, Sydney finds herself awakening in Hong Kong after a climactic battle. Vaughn, her ally and love interest, is shocked to fine her alive, and informs her she’s been missing for almost two years.
It was a great way to perform a soft reboot on a show that was getting a little stuck in its own labyrinthine mythology. Whether the show delivered on that new beginning is still open to debate.
11 BEST: The West Wing - “What Kind Of Day Has It Been”
The debut season of The West Wing is a marvel. Nearly every one of its 22 episodes were scripted by series creator Aaron Sorkin. The West Wing was a show that didn’t shy away from the trials and complications of governing, but at the end of the day was always hopeful, and had unwavering faith in American institutions and the smart, capable people steering the ship of democracy.
With that sense of warmth and positivity at its heart, it was rather shocking to see the first season conclude with a massive hail of gunfire, as a group of white supremacists carried out an assassination attempt on the president’s motorcade. As shots rang out and frantic Secret Service agents could be heard screaming “who’s down, who’s down?”, The West Wing faded to black, concluding one of the best debut seasons in TV history on a note of sheer panic.
10 WORST: Friends - “The One With Ross’ Wedding”
The season 4 finale of Friends is not without its charms. As the gang travels to London for Ross’ wedding to Emily, there’s plenty of quality “fish out of water” humor to be had (mostly via Joey, who is utterly oblivious to his annoying tourist indulgences), and some fun (if rather dated) British celebrity cameos. It’s also the genesis of the show’s best and most enduring romantic relationship, as Chandler and Monica drunkenly hook up after the rehearsal dinner.
But then there’s the twist. As Ross and Emily are exchanging vows, Ross accidentally says Rachel’s name instead of Emily’s. If you’re in the camp that viewed the through line of Friends to be the on again/off again romance between Ross and Rachel, this was likely a welcome moment. If you’re in the camp that thought the show had largely grown out of that particular tired sitcom trope, this was a solid opportunity to roll your eyes as far back into your head as is physically possible. It’s dull soap opera plotting, and the show got surprisingly little mileage out of it.
9 BEST: Breaking Bad - “Full Measure”
The walls were beginning to close in on Walter White by the third season finale of Breaking Bad. After having saved his partner Jesse Pinkman from a group of Gus Fring’s dealers (Jesse was outraged Gus’ people were using children in their drug dealings), Gus decided that Walt and Jesse were no longer worth the trouble. Gus brought in Gale, an amiable chemist, ostensibly to assist Walt in his meth lab, but he really wanted Gale to learn enough so he could take over the operation full time and Walt could be disposed of.
Walt realizes he can buy himself and Jesse time if they kill Gale, but he’s intercepted by Gus’ men before he can murder him. Walt makes a final, desperate plea to Jesse, who is deeply reluctant to kill an innocent man, to do the job himself.
Jesse finds himself at Gale’s door, on the cusp of doing the most reprehensible thing he’s ever done, pointing the gun at Gales’s head… as the screen goes black, and the audience is left to ponder Jesse’s decision for months.
8 BEST: Buffy The Vampire Slayer - “The Gift”
Season 5 was an odd crossroads for Buffy The Vampire Slayer. The show was arguably at its creative peak as Buffy and the gang took on Glory, a god of seemingly limitless power, and Buffy dealt with the death of her mother and the curious appearance of a never-before-seen kid sister, Dawn. At the same time, the show’s days as the flagship series of the WB network were coming to a contentious close. While the show would relocate to another network for its final two seasons, there was a mild possibility season 5 could have been the end of the road for the show.
That would have been earth-shattering, as the final episode of season 5 is an epic, devastating hour of television. When Glory uses Dawn’s blood to open up a portal to a demon dimension that will overrun Earth, Buffy finally understands the ancient prophecy that has haunted her all season: “Death is your gift.” Buffy jumps into the portal, sealing it shut with her blood, but killing herself in the process. The episode ends with a shot of the inscription on Buffy’s grave: “She saved the world a lot.”
7 WORST: ALF - “Consider Me Gone”
There was an odd rash of gimmicky sitcoms in the '80s, but none was more beloved in its heyday as ALF. The story of an alien who crash landed on Earth, ALF is taken in by a typical American family, the Tanners, where he watches a lot of television and torments the family cat, while typical sitcom hijinks plays out as ALF tries to stay concealed from the outside world.
It was a light, silly show where the more serious ramifications of ALF’s existence were pretty much always put on the back burner in favor of easier, more family-friendly laughs. This makes the season four finale all the more confounding. ALF learns of a nearby colony of his people and decides to depart Earth, but before he can he and the Tanners are intercepted and detained by government officials. It’s a surprisingly serious turn, and a cliffhanger the show never got to resolve as it was surprisingly cancelled after its fourth season.
A TV movie six years later (that did not feature the Tanner family) would do little to justify the hard left turn.
6 BEST: Lost - “Through The Looking Glass”
After taking the television world by storm with its dazzling first season, Lost stumbled considerably through a muddled second season, and was hitting its nadir by the middle of the third season. It was at this point series co-creator Damon Lindelof did something no producer of a successful television show would ever dare: he asked his network to commit to ending the series after season 6, so they could stop delaying plot progression and tell a complete story. Shockingly, ABC agreed to this, and it ended up fundamentally changing the way television is made.
The season 3 finale seemed to share the usual structure of a Lost episode: the exploits on the island were intercut with flashbacks to the survivors’ time before the plane crash, this particular one featuring the tormented doctor Jack. The twist this time, however, was that it was not a flashback; it was a flashforward, revealing that at some point multiple characters get off the island, but are deeply troubled by what they left behind. It’s one of TV’s greatest shockers, and it reinvigorated a creatively sagging show.
5 BEST: Doctor Who: “The Name Of The Doctor”
By the seventh season of the revived Doctor Who series, it was well established that there was an untold chapter of the Doctor’s life that always haunted him on some level: his actions during the universe ravaging Time War. There were allusions to the role he played in the war, but the specifics were largely left unsaid, even to his closest allies. There was the assumption that the Time War was fought by either the Eighth Doctor (played by Paul McGann) or the Ninth Doctor (played by Christopher Eccleston).
This assumption was blown out of the water by the conclusion of “The Name of the Doctor.” Descending into his own personal timeline to save his time displaced companion, Clara, the Doctor is confronted by his darkest secret, a never before seen regeneration, played by John Hurt, who committed such unspeakable acts during the Time War that he renounced the title of the Doctor.
This shocking reveal would be the catalyst for the dazzling, character-defining 50th anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor.”
4 WORST: The Walking Dead - “Last Day On Earth”
The Walking Dead became one of the most popular shows on television by showcasing a bleak, unflinching view of a ravaged world overrun by zombies, and exploring what people are capable of, both heroic and monstrous, in the face of such hopelessness. It didn’t hurt that the show was viscerally thrilling and as expertly shot as any big budget zombie movie.
However, somewhere along the line, as it shed showrunners like fleas, the show stopped being a dark meditation on humanity and survival and lurched into ugly, gory nihilism. The height of this empty excess was the introduction of Negan (played by the usually wonderful Jeffrey Dean Morgan), as he lined up the show’s heroes and declared he was going to beat one of them to death with his barbed wire bat.
Negan takes a point of view swing at the camera, the season ends on a cheap, mean-spirited cliffhanger, a self-inflicted wound the show was unable to escape from.
3 BEST: The Simpsons - “Who Shot Mr. Burns?”
The Simpsons was essentially bulletproof by its sixth season. The greatest animated sitcom of all time was comfortably in its creative prime. The show had thrived almost exclusively on self-contained, relatively low stakes stories, give or take an occasional Sideshow Bob murder attempt. The producers decided to try something different at the close of season 6, and boy, did it ever pay off.
As Mr. Burns begins to evolve from relatively mundane evil to supervillain evil (blocking out the sun, robbing Springfield Elementary of an oil deposit discovered beneath the school), the town’s citizens begin to take up arms and threaten violence against the miserable old coot. Even Burns’ right hand man, Smithers, believes he’s gone too far. As the episode concludes, Mr. Burns is shot by an unseen assailant, his fate unclear.
An homage to the classic series Dallas’ “Who Shot J.R?” plot, the mystery of “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” ended up enthralling America on an almost equal level of hysteria. That the assailant’s identity ended up being purposefully ridiculous only adds to the two-parter’s brilliance.
2 WORST: Game of Thrones - “Mother’s Mercy”
This one is an example where the cliffhanger itself is not actually that bad, but the proceeding actions by Game of Thrones producers and cast make it retroactively insulting. As tensions mount at the Wall over Jon Snow’s decision to integrate the Wildlings into their ranks, a mutiny against the young Lord Commander is initiated. A handful of men repeatedly stab Jon Snow, and he falls to the ground with a growing pool of blood beneath him. It’s a shocking turn of events that would have fueled plenty of offseason speculation without comment from the show’s producers.
However, the producers decided to play a deeply silly game with their audience, where they swore, loudly and often, that Jon Snow was indeed permanently dead, and the character’s story arc was over. This was hard to believe for a lot of reasons: Jon’s role in the bigger story of the series was clearly not finished, and the producers were noticeably coyer about the fate of relatively minor players like Stannis (who really was dead).
This little charade left a bad taste in everyone’s mouths, and hopefully the show’s producers learned a valuable lesson: do not assume your audience is comprised of idiots.
1 BEST: Star Trek: The Next Generation - “The Best of Both Worlds”
This is as good as it gets. Hailed as one of television’s greatest shockers, “The Best of Both Worlds” tells a dual story, where the Enterprise is in pursuit of the relentless, malevolent Borg, and the ship’s first officer, Commander William Riker, is enduring something akin to an early midlife crisis. As Riker contemplates his career stagnation, and his seeming acceptance of that stagnation (spurred on by young upstart Lieutenant Commander Shelby, who has her eye on Riker’s job), the Enterprise crew realize the Borg intend to cut a swath through the Federation’s fleet and assimilate all of Earth.
When the Borg board the Enterprise, they capture Captain Picard and alter him into Locutus, a horrifying Borg spokesman. A noticeably shaken Enterprise crew feels as if all hope is lost when Locutus contacts them and tells them, devoid of any of Picard’s intellect or nuance, that resistance is futile and that their efforts are irrelevant. Riker, staring down his beloved mentor across space, ignores the crew’s pleas for a rescue mission and orders Mr. Worf to fire on the Borg ship, as the screen cuts to black. And with that, Star Trek: The Next Generation completely nailed the TV cliffhanger.
What are your favorite and least favorite cliffhangers? Let us know in the comments!
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